Thursday, January 26, 2017

Anti-BDS in a "Blue Bubble"

Oregon Governor Kate Brown
I thought I was immune.  I thought that living in the Pacific Northwest, where my two Senators, four of my five Congresspersons, my Governor and my state legislature were all Democrats would protect me and the rest of my fellow Oregonians from the crazy conservativism that hit the USA with the election of He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named (still can't bring myself to say his name!).  I was wrong.

Last week I learned that an anti-BDS bill had been introduced in the state legislature of neighboring Washington state.  A few days later, I learned the Jewish Federation of Oregon was "shopping" a similar bill to the Oregon State Legislature, looking for a representative to introduce it.  I also learned the American Jewish Committee was circulating a "Governors Against BDS Letter," seeking the signatures of all 50US Governors.

Following is the letter that I wrote to my state legislators (with a similar letter going to the Governor):
Oregon State Senator Ginny Burdick

Dear Senator Burdick –

I write to ask you, first, to not put forward or sponsor a bill that would make BDS (Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions) against companies complicit with the illegal Israeli Occupation of Palestine illegal and, further, if such an unconstitutional bill should come before the Oregon State Senate to oppose it vigorously!

Why would the State of Oregon even consider such a ludicrous, undemocratic piece of legislation, you may well ask!  Well, as I’m sure you are aware, other states have not only considered such “anti-BDS” bills, they have passed them (20+ states have already passed some form of “anti-BDS” law), and the trend appears to be growing. 

Notwithstanding that such legislation is a clear violation of First Amendment/Free Speech rights, state legislators – emboldened by the new wave of conservatism that is sweeping the USA and aided by groups such as the Jewish Federation (which is the group we are told has drafted a bill for which they are seeking sponsorship here in Oregon) – are seeking to take away our rights as citizens to peacefully protest injustice.

Such bills are sometimes cloaked in the guise of protection from “anti-Semitism,” but there is nothing anti-Semitic about BDS.  The current BDS movement is aimed at the Israeli government and at companies (often American companies such as Caterpillar and Motorola) who are complicit in an occupation that has been going on for 50 years in violation of international law.

As you know, it was BDS that is credited with doing away with apartheid in South Africa, and BDS has been successfully utilized to stop injustice in the US (Civil Rights and farm workers to name just two). 

I spent an extended period of time as a human rights observer in Palestine several years ago, and can personally vouch for the injustices perpetrated against the Palestinian people.  I would be happy to meet with you and to share why I believe that we in Oregon (and, indeed, across the globe) should do everything we can to bring justice to this tiny piece of real estate. 

But even setting aside that issue, the question for us as Oregonians is why should we even be wasting our time on undemocratic, unconstitutional legislation (that will almost certainly be targeted by the ACLU), when there are so many pressing problems right here that we should be spending our time and energies on?

Thank you for your attention 

Operating under the belief that snail-mail letters gain more attention than e-mail, I posted these letters yesterday.  I'll keep you posted!

Friday, December 23, 2016

History - Or Politics?

Activists in front of City Hall, Portland, Oregon

Portland (OR) had the chance to make history this week.  The City Council of what is widely recognized as one of the most progressive cities in the United States could have made a statement that said it was putting its investments in line with its values, that it was going to put companies that were acknowledged as the “worst of the worst” on a “Do Not Buy” list.

The stage was set.  Two years ago, the City Council compiled a list of criteria for “socially responsible” investing, and set up a Socially Responsible Investment Committee (SRIC) to review the city’s investments and make recommendations as to businesses that should be included on the “Do Not Buy List.”   The criteria included companies for which there were:
  • Environmental concerns
  • Health concerns including weapons production
  • Concerns about abusive labor practices
  • Concerns about corrupt corporate ethics and governance
  • Concerns about extreme tax avoidance
  • Concerns about exercise of such a level of market dominance so as to disrupt normal competitive market forces
  • Concerns about impacts on human rights
Even before the SRIC held its first meeting, the city’s Human Rights Commission (HRC) was approached by a group of human rights “activists” and asked to endorse a request that the SRIC include Caterpillar on its “Do Not Buy” list, based upon its human rights violations in Palestine, among other things.  Initially, the HRC voted unanimously to make this endorsement; after “push back” from the Jewish Federation and other “anti-BDS” activists, a second meeting was devoted to this endorsement with the result that two HRC members backed away from their initial positive votes, while the majority held firm.
Caterpillar violates 6 of 7 Socially Responsible Criteria
The issue then went to the SRIC, which took testimony on Caterpillar and other “bad actors” brought to its attention, including Wells Fargo Bank for its support of the private prison industry and other violations of the city’s criteria.  Again, there was lengthy testimony and heated debate – especially about the inclusion of Caterpillar – but ultimately the SRIC found that Caterpillar violated six of the seven criteria listed above, and put it on the list of “do not buy” companies.  Wells Fargo was also on this list, which then went to the City Council for approval about a month ago.

The City Council then held a lengthy hearing, during which activists on all sides repeated much of the testimony that the HRC and the SRIC had already heard.  Additional testimony was given concerning Caterpillar’s participation in the Standing Rock pipeline, which had become a major issue in the intervening months, and its proposed use to build Donald Trump’s intended “wall with Mexico.”  After taking more than four hours of testimony, one Commissioner decided that the SRIC had not done what he expected them to do (which was to single out two or three companies that were “the worst of the worse"!), so he prepared a resolution that would discount the work of the HRC and SRIC and put the three companies that HE thought were the “worst” (which did not include Caterpillar or Wells Fargo) on the “do not buy” list.

Inside Council Chambers, Portland (OR) City Hall
The vote was scheduled to take place last week, but an unusual (for Portland!) snow storm precluded a quorum of City Commissioners attending that meeting, so the vote was re-scheduled for December 21.  And on that day, the above-mentioned Commissioner – who was (defeated in his bid for re-election and) attending his last meeting before leaving office, did an “about face” and announced his support for the inclusion of Caterpillar and Wells Fargo on the “do not buy” list.  This courageous move (albeit one with few political consequences) was immediately superseded by a so-called “friendly amendment” by another Commissioner to suspend city purchases of ANY corporate bonds for a four-month period, in order to give the city (including the newly-elected Mayor and Commissioner, who would take office in January) a chance to “study” the bigger issue of city investments.

In other words, in my eyes (and those of other activists), the city declined to make a statement about corporate responsibility and socially responsible investing, and merely “kicked the can” down the road to be dealt with later.  It was a solution that pleased everyone by pleasing no-one – very political (and very “un-Portland like” in my humble view!).  And it means that Portland lost its opportunity to take its place in history – to take a stand for justice through its investments at a time when such a sign was urgently needed.